- A Brief History
- Basic Beliefs
- Practices, Diet and Attire
- Calendar & Holidays
- Major Life Events
- Major Denominations
I work in an office that allows employees to decorate our work spaces. I decided to put up a picture of a pentagram, a five-pointed star that, in my Wiccan coven, represents the perfected human. A few days later my supervisor asked me to take down this picture. She told me that a Christian colleague had complained about it, saying that the pentagram represents devil-worship and he was uncomfortable having to see one in the office every day.
It really bothered me that my supervisor didn’t give me the chance to explain that Wiccans don’t worship the devil and that in my tradition the pentagram represents balance between the spirit and the four elements of nature, a balance that I personally strive for. It was like she just assumed my Christian coworker’s religious beliefs were more valid or important than mine. Since then, I’ve wondered whether I should even tell the people I work with that I’m a Wiccan. I don’t want them all to think I worship the devil. I also don’t know how my supervisor will react if I request time off to participate in a Wiccan festival or visit a member of my coven who is sick. My office has a good record on accommodating the religious beliefs of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others—I just wish my supervisor and coworkers understood that Wicca is as important to me as some of my coworkers’ religious practices are to them.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Wicca is a religion that has become increasingly popular since the latter half of the twentieth century. In 1951 a man named Gerald B. Gardner went public with his practice of witchcraft, insisting that he was part of a society of witches who engaged in Pagan worship. Today most scholars argue that Gardner was not part of a witchcraft community and that he and his associates were the ones to create Wicca as it exists today. Regardless of whether Gardner was creating a series of rituals or publicizing rituals that had been taught to him, his books Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1957) were extremely influential in the reemergence of witchcraft in Britain and the West.
Wicca is one tradition within Paganism, a religion that emphasizes the revival of polytheistic religious practices and usually includes a reverence for nature. Wicca distinguishes itself from the broader practice of Paganism by its focus on witchcraft and ritual magic, which is not practiced by all modern Pagans.
Some Wiccans believe that their religion was widely practiced in pre-Christian Europe until practitioners were persecuted by the Christian Church, which ultimately forced the religion underground. Many historians dispute this thesis and instead date modern Wicca to Gardner’s work in the 1950s, which promoted a form of Wicca centered on a god of fertility and great earth goddess.
While Wicca is an extremely decentralized religion whose followers practice in a number of different ways, Wicca was influenced by the cultural attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s such as respect for nature; acceptance of sexual practices like homosexuality, non-monogamous relationships, and contraception; and support for feminism.
Wicca has also benefited greatly from the increasing accessibility of the internet. Websites and chat rooms allowed Wiccans to connect over the internet and led to the existence of new Wiccan communities. In large part because of its embrace of the internet, Wicca is now considered one of the fastest growing new religions in the English-speaking world.
Since Wicca is a diverse religion without a formal doctrine, it is difficult to know how many Wiccans there are in the United States or worldwide. In addition, societal discrimination against Wicca might prevent its practitioners from openly identifying as Wiccans. A 2001 survey found 134,000 adherents to Wicca in the United States, although actual numbers may be higher.
Wicca is an extremely diffuse religion whose followers practice their faith in a variety of different ways. In fact, a 1989 book by Scott Cunningham entitled Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner argued that Wicca is an individualistic religion whose practitioners could alter their expression of Wicca to suit their personal beliefs and needs. However, there are several overarching beliefs that are common to the practice of Wicca.
The most universal belief in Wicca is the maxim known as the Wiccan Rede, which states, “If it harm none, do what ye will.” This statement probably dates to 1964, when it was recorded in print as having been spoken by Doreen Valiente, who served as a High Priestess in Gerald Gardner’s coven. The Rede has become extremely popular in Wiccan communities as an expression of personal responsibility balanced with the importance of respect for others.
Many Wiccans worship both the natural world and spiritual beings such as gods and goddesses, nature spirits, or ancestral spirits. Unlike many believers within other religions that believe the spiritual world represents a higher order than the physical world, Wiccans usually believe that the spiritual and physical world are equal and related to one another. Since Wiccans embrace the importance of the natural world, support for environmentalism and stewardship of the earth are very common among Wiccans.
Wiccans frequently incorporate mythology from around the world into their rituals and may therefore worship gods and goddesses from a variety of mythological traditions. Some Wiccans believe in one archetypal God and one archetypal Goddess who are manifested in the range of mythological deities. Other Wiccans believe in an impersonal god-spirit that transcends gender and other human characteristics. Some Wiccans, in contrast, are truly polytheistic and worship a number of individual deities. Nearly all Wiccans reject the idea of a single, masculine God.
Wiccans do not believe in Satan (contrary to the idea that Wiccans worship the Devil). Some believe in good and evil, while others prefer more fluid concepts like order and chaos. Wiccans emphasize harmony and balance and usually do not see the world in stark categories of good and evil. Most Wiccans do not believe in divine reward and punishment but do believe in a kind of karmic energy in which individuals’ good or bad actions shape their future. Wiccans also frequently believe in a reincarnation process where souls are recycled into new people in order to learn and grow more by experiencing both pain and joy.
Wiccans believe and participate in the practice of magic. In many Wiccan traditions magic involves the gathering of energy towards a particular goal. Wiccan magic usually has either a practical goal involving external change in the world, or a spiritual goal involving the love and adoration of a god or the transformation of an individual into a more spiritual or godlike state.
Finally, Wiccans usually incorporate feminism into their practice. Wicca promotes the idea that men and women have complementary and completely equal roles, both within Wiccan covens and in society at large. Wiccans also accept broad possibilities for the expression of gender identity. Some Wiccan groups only accept women and have a particularly feminist focus, but in all Wiccan groups the Priestess plays a significant role and is seen as an important source of power.
PRACTICES, DIET AND ATTIRE
As with Wiccan beliefs, Wiccan practices are highly individual and vary greatly from person to person or community to community. While rituals can take virtually any form, they usually involve symbolism, such as decorating a ritual site with significant and symbolic colors or objects.
Wiccans often create magically inscribed ritual circles for their ceremonies; these circles are meant to serve as portals between the physical and spiritual worlds. They can be drawn in any location and dismantled when a ritual is finished, meaning that they function as sacred spaces that can be taken anywhere. During rituals Wiccans may also create shrines in each of the four directions that represent the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), an altar in the center of the ritual circle, or a fire pit.
Depending on the tradition, rituals may be led by a Priest and Priestess who invoke the spirit of a god and goddess. The Priest and Priestess will anoint the other participants’ forehead with oil, outline the circle with incense, and use an athame, or ceremonial knife, to symbolically cut through the “boundary” separating the physical world from the spiritual world. The Priest and Priestess will offer invocations to the four elements before invoking the god and goddess to be present in one another. They will kiss and offer prophetic words. The coven will then chant, drum, meditate, or engage in other practices meant to draw energy towards the Priestess in a “cone of power” that is directed towards a community goal, such as the healing of a sick friend.
Many Wiccans set up a shrine in their home or yard. These shrines can contain statues of gods or goddesses, symbols of nature (and particularly the four elements), candles or incense, or other items with personal or spiritual significance. These shrines can serve as the focal point for worship or meditation or as an altar that is used in ceremonies. In keeping with the individualized practice of Wicca, what a shrine contains and how it is used is left largely up to the discretion of the individual Wiccan.
Some Wiccans engage in active prayer, others in visualization or breath awareness, and others who do not believe in an external deity find prayer to be meaningless. Some Wiccans borrow practices from other religions, such as meditation or the use of a rosary. In addition, since Wiccans reject the idea of a disconnect between the spiritual and natural world, some Wiccans find activities like hiking, camping, gardening, or others to be spiritually significant.
Wiccans use a variety of symbols in their practice, many of which are adapted from other religions. The most common symbol is the pentagram, a five-point start that is usually enclosed by a circle. The pentagram can signify a variety of things, but it is most often used to signify the four elements in nature, with the fifth point representing the spirit and the surrounding circle representing eternity.
Many Wiccans also keep a journal or “Book of Shadows” that is used to record rituals or magical lore.
Some Wiccan traditions involve ritual food which is, depending on the tradition, either offered as a sacrifice for a god, or eaten by the participants in a ritual. Participants in a ritual may fast prior to the ceremony. Some Wiccans believe that eating meat harms animals and therefore violates the Wiccan Rede, and consequently choose to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet. Others do not object to eating meat.
There are no specific clothes that Wiccans need to wear, although in some traditions there are prohibitions on wearing watches or having electronic devices like cell phones present during a ritual. Wiccans will commonly wear a necklace with a pentagram on it.
CALENDAR & HOLIDAYS
The Wiccan sacred calendar is determined by both the sun and the moon. Lunar cycles occur every 29-30 days, while the solar cycle occurs over the course of a year. Many Wiccans—whether individually or as part of a coven—perform ceremonies on the nights of the full and new moon. These days are seen as corresponding to times in a woman’s menstrual cycle, with the full moon representing ovulation and the new moon representing menstruation. Both of these days are seen as good times to worship the spirit of a Goddess or goddesses, who are associated with the moon; new moon celebrations are usually solemn and contemplative, representing rest and withdrawal from the world, while full moon celebrations are joyous, representing fertility and new life.
The solar cycle observed by Wiccans involves eight holidays that are collectively known as “the Wheel of the Year.” These holidays are the summer and winter solstices, the fall and spring equinoxes, and four agricultural holidays that are rooted in British and Irish mythology.
MAJOR LIFE EVENTS
Birth: Since Wicca is religion that emphasizes nature, the physical world, and fertility, the birth of a child is considered a very joyous event. As with other aspects of Wicca, ceremonies and practices surrounding the birth of a child vary greatly. Some parents celebrate individually, and others hold ceremonies with their coven or Priestess while the mother is pregnant. Frequently Wiccans will hold a naming ceremony after the child has been born; there is no set time frame for these ceremonies, which can be held immediately after a child is born, within the next few months or even years, or at the next major Wiccan holiday.
Death: Wiccans usually view death as a natural part of life. Wiccans try to visit and talk to members of their coven who are known to be dying; Wiccan employees may therefore request time off from work to visit sick coven members. Since Wiccans generally believe that after death the soul will briefly have a time of rest and joy, followed by reincarnation, many Wiccans try to face death with acceptance rather than fear.
Funeral Rites and Post Death Practices: Many Wiccans keep their faith and practice a secret from non-Wiccan family members. As a result, when a Wiccan has passed away there is often a standard memorial service and burial; afterwards, a coven may hold a “Crossing Over” ceremony in which coven members offer their memories of the deceased or pray for the deceased’s spirit to have an easy crossing. One of the eight Wiccan holidays, Samhain, celebrates the mystery of death, and a deceased Wiccan is honored at the next Samhain, which is specifically set aside as a mourning period.
Marriage: Wiccan wedding rituals are often referred to as “handfastings.” They usually involve many of the same traditions that are common to non-Wiccan weddings, such as the exchanging of rings and the presence of a wedding cake. Wiccans may choose to hold their wedding inside a ritual circle, followed afterwards with a party or feast. Wiccan communities are accepting of same-sex weddings or weddings in which more than two people choose to commit to each other.
Divorce/Other Marriage-Related Practices: Wiccans are typically accepting of divorce. Wiccans may choose to participate in a divorce ceremony called a “handparting” that is sometimes administered by the same person who administered the “handfasting” ceremony. The “handparting” ceremony is meant to provide people with both magical and emotional closure following the end of their relationship and give them the freedom to go their own way in life.
Since Wicca is a highly individual religion whose members practice in many different ways, there are essentially an infinite number of Wicca denominations. One prominent strain within Wicca is feminist Wicca, which is also known as Dianic Wicca. Unlike other forms of Wicca, Dianic Wicca only allows women into its practice and is focused on the worship of a single female Goddess.
There are also disagreements among Wiccans as to the difference between Wicca and Witchcraft. Some believe that they are essentially the same thing, while others believe that Wicca is a dilution of “true” Witchcraft, and still others believe that Wicca is a religion while Witchcraft only involves the practice of magic.